Learned Helplessness. Is It Possible To Counter It In Wartime?

In the course of the war in Ukraine and its following escalation, the term “learned helplessness” can be heard more and more often from the lips of analysts and journalists. Most often, the term is applied to the citizens of the Russian Federation, when they try to argue the reason for maintaining the current state system, the absence of mass unrest, and so on in the presence of a sufficiently large number of discontent. These grievances include completely different factors related to different sections of the population.

In this article, I will talk about the phenomenon of learned helplessness, about its formation in Russian society, as well as the impact on some events in real time. The opinion expressed in the text may not coincide with the opinion of the entire project of the Free Russia Institute and its other representatives.

Learned helplessness and its formation in Russian society

Learned helplessness is a chronic condition in which a person does not take any action to improve the state of her or his life. Under such conditions, the individual does not observe the connection between the efforts and results. The catchphrase “It won’t change anything anyway” has probably been met by many lately in the most unjustified way.

The theory of learned helplessness was developed by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to the experimental base, the scientist came to the conclusion that learned helplessness occurs when situations are repeated many times in which a living being does not have the opportunity to influence the situation in any way.

In our case, in order for such a theoretically huge number of people to be carriers of the learned helplessness syndrome, one must look for something more general than just the desire to change the political system. Still, it seems to me that in order to find the cause of commonality, one must look into times that were much milder for the human psyche.  Into the childhood.

Many psychotherapists claim that a child’s personality is formed before the age of 12. Until the moment when the system of conscious education was popularized in Russia, in which the idea of ​​individualism and personal boundaries of each was promoted, a model was adopted in which the child is obliged to obey the elders even when they might be wrong. Soviet upbringing added its own rules, under which a Komsomol member from a young age should always be in business, study well, be faster, taller and stronger.  The famous 1990s did not leave the opportunity to “be capricious” at all, as many children were told then.  There was no choice of what to eat, what to wear, or how to spend your leisure time. Thus, most of the adult people in modern Russia are simply not trained to decide something and / or feel the significance of their decisions. Sad historical events and ideological mentality became the soil in which the idea was formed from kindergarten that you do not decide anything. The one who decides is always more important, older, higher, but not you. At the same time, it is difficult to protest against what is the norm for the majority.

The main signs of the syndrome become approximately clear already from its definition. There is no desire to change anything, to become better, because everything is useless and nothing always works out the way it should. It will only get worse, so why take responsibility again and again and feel the bitterness of external censure.

In calmer times in the political environment, for example, those who led the election campaigns faced it. People seemed to be disposed to ensure that with the new deputy composition their life in the district would become better, however, quite often they refused to simply come to the polling stations, because “their vote does not decide anything.” Most of the time campaign activists spend to ensure that people still believe in themselves and come to the polling stations without turning around at the last moment on the doorstep.

By the way, the propaganda mentioned many times in previous articles, which sets people up to a state in which they believed in powerlessness, also made its contribution.

How does learned helplessness affect the effectiveness of protest activity?

If psychology and psychotherapy in the post-Soviet space are still often treated with skepticism, even, it would seem, by some fellow oppositionists, one can imagine the scale of the problem that we all faced this year, when it was far from about new benches near the house, but about innocent lives, about the decisions of the state, under which there was no rationality, but only a thirst for aggressive military activities.

Under the indescribably tragic circumstances that have developed we do not see thousands of people on the streets of cities. Of course, this can be explained by a natural desire to protect you and your loved ones, when people are pulled out and imprisoned simply for pacifist anti-war rhetoric.  Nevertheless, according to my personal observations, the decrease in the number of people in public opposition actions is a natural problem of recent years. Indeed, we have very few modern examples before our eyes when a mass public protest “decided something.” The reader understands that what is meant here is not that public protest itself, such as rallies, is of no use, it means that there are few examples in recent years after which something has really changed. Because of this, a large number of activists also, systematically falling under distribution and not getting results, stopped attending public opposition events.  Because, quote, “it still doesn’t solve anything.”

From the point of view of the political management of anti-war and opposition events, many politicians play a very bad joke on their neglect of the importance of human mentality, their neglect of a large number of facts, as well as their sincere belief in their special purpose and controversy in one single speech to get rid of the problem that has been forming for many years.

Therefore, for many, it was a frank shock that a certain percentage of the civilian population is ready to go to war on conscription, not even because of their convictions, but because they believe that he cannot influence the situation. As one of the reasons for this, experts call the syndrome of learned helplessness, in which people do not even try to change the situation and save their lives. After all, where does a person for whom they made a decision even on the choice of a specialty at a university find the strength to change overnight, get rid of prejudices and fears and be saved?

However, now we are all in a situation where, due to the actions of our state, the inhabitants of another country are dying, and our own serve as consumables. In this regard, the result of the cessation of bloodshed also depends on the speed of change in Russia’s domestic politics. Unfortunately, we do not have as much time as before. However, oddly enough, when we stop doing something, we ourselves can drown in learned helplessness.

What actions can be taken?

As we understood from the previous part, in the context of a war with another state, it is important for us to learn how to somehow work with this mass learned helplessness, whether it be the civilian population or our fellow activists who get tired and do not periodically receive, perhaps, the necessary support and explanations.

First you need to understand that it is impossible to directly force a person to change if he himself does not want it. First, you need to be aware of your own problem, and for this you need to start talking with the population about it, informing them, however, definitely not through the prism of censure. If a person with learned helplessness continues to say that he will not achieve anything, accuse him of inaction, then his doubts about his own helplessness will only intensify, as, in other matters, they are intensifying for many now.

Political scientist Ekaterina Shulman spoke about learned helplessness on the “Reception Day” stream about the fight against learned helplessness: “Learned helplessness is overcome in the same way that a low level of trust is overcome. This is one of our social curses, the social curses of all citizens of post-totalitarian societies. It is overcome by joint action or, more precisely, by the successful experience of joint action… The question is how to start? How, it would seem, is to overcome the impossibility of successful joint action in an environment that is unfavorable for joint action?.. There is no other recipe except, firstly, awareness of your position, realistically realize both your opportunities and your risks… In small steps, together with other  people, uniting on the principle of commonality, interests, and necessarily celebrating any of their smallest achievements… Everything depends on the perseverance of this [human] desire.

There is a very important remark in this quote that it is necessary to increase the number of possible joint events for people that will be of a unifying nature. This may not always be direct anti-war rhetoric, it may be something close to it and less, probably frightening, as well as something that will make people feel empowered to change the world around them in a short time. To achieve, for example, by joint efforts, to conduct a separate collection in the yard, or to overcome some common household fear.

In the case of those who are under the threat of mobilization and have fallen into a state of near frustration, it is necessary to speak in terms of the value of their individuality and their life, and it is very important that someone who truly believes what is said speak it. A person should not feel helpless and alone in his trouble, in order to get out he must feel support in his loved ones. Also, in order to help the mobilized, it is necessary to share with him reasonable information about the available alternatives.

Yes, unfortunately, overcoming learned helplessness in the mass is a long-term exercise, in fact requiring that it be done by those who realize that such things do not happen quickly by themselves and with minimal effort.  However, we can start talking to people sincerely and humanly, teach them to be, in fact, people who can start making decisions on their own, which is very unprofitable for the entire Russian state system.

To create a community it is necessary to continue to create programs that will certainly lead to some positive result. For example, it is impossible to give training events that do not lead to a positive outcome for the participants, otherwise they will naturally only increase the feeling of helplessness in front of the universe, they will gradually lose interest in this kind of activity.

Of course, I will once again talk about how fundamentally important it is to record the result of targeted interaction with citizens with the help of research programs. For large projects, this is, of course, an independent sociology with a bias in psychology, for small events, as, in general, it was indicated in the example above, basic analytics and slices of the state of participants in activities in different periods of time. And these figures must be monitored and constantly kept in mind for an objective assessment and the adoption of competent, including managerial, decisions.

In war conditions, it will indeed be harder for society to overcome such a problem as learned helplessness, however, this is not a reason to succumb to the despondency that our political opponents are counting on — on the contrary, this is a reason to speak up and act more actively.